Doing Music Yourself: Tips from Scotland's Experts

Always fancied fronting a punk band? Accidentally bought a CDJ on Ebay? You'll be needing The Skinny's guide to Scotland's ever-fertile music scene.

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 12 Sep 2016

Lugging your vinyl collection into halls is one way to make sure your prospective new pals *know* you’re serious about rare reissues of Arthur Russell records. Alternatively, prove your alternative credentials by taking a big brave step right into the centre of your new local music scene. You're in the best place for it: Edinburgh’s got tons of tiny clubs tucked in amongst those wynds, Dundee’s do-it-yerself attitude is second to none, and lucky new Glaswegians will be spoilt for musical choice every single damn night of the week. But if you fancy yourself as the next Honeyblood or Hudson Mohawke, you’ll need to get off your crappily assembled IKEA bed and put in some actual elbow grease. 

Ready to get started? Take advice from some of Scotland’s hardest working musical supremos – Martyn Flyn from electronic innovators LuckyMe – co-founded by HudMo, the label is home to Rustie, TNGHT and Jacques Green; Emily MacLaren, founder and engineer at Glasgow’s The Green Door Studio, which has seen The Amazing Snakeheads, Palma Violets, Optimo and hundreds more through its doors; Dundee DIY chief Derrick Johnston of Make-That-A-Take records and the annual Book Yer Ane Fest; Michael Lambert, director of industry convention Wide Days; Joel White, head of bookings at the Art School; and Eilidh McMillan from grunge-pop Glasgow band Breakfast Muff as well as Rapid Tan, her solo project Jealous Girlfriend and "sometimes" Joanna Gruesome. Good luck! We'll see you down the front for your first basement gig. 

Martyn Flyn

Co-founder, LuckyMe

What were the original intentions for LuckyMe?
We formed the label – initially out of a club night in Glasgow – to release our friends’ music, inspired by the independent hip hop scenes and the DIY attitude of a lot of electronic labels. We had a desire to keep a cohesive vision both musically and visually; this hasn’t really changed. We have always been ambitious and obviously things have grown considerably, but this really underpins how we have chosen the artists we work with – people we respect as musicians and can really connect with as friends.

How did LuckyMe grow into a fully international label?
It naturally occurred through connecting with other artists abroad and wanting to release their music... I’m fascinated with groups of people creating their own scene and culture around what they do wherever they are in the world – it feels relative to what we have been doing in Scotland – [and] this has definitely been why we have worked with so many artists from Montreal and NYC.  

What advice would you give to someone for promoting their own music?
Make sure you are presenting your best work – every demo you make doesn’t need to be uploaded immediately. Consider your options and don’t just say yes immediately to every opportunity. Put a value on your work, and don’t compromise decisions because something in the short term seems like a good move.

Between Edinburgh and Glasgow, do you have a favourite music venue?
There’s plenty of excellent ones – The Art School, Sub Club, Broadcast etc, etc. I’d probably say my favourite is Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh; it feels like home and the crowd is always amazing.

Michael Lambert

Director, Wide Days.

How did you first get involved in music in Scotland?
I started out playing in bands through school and university, before moving into artist management [Lambert co-owns A Modern Way, managing Fatherson and Idlewild]. During my time as a musician I attended a monthly music industry social night called Born To Be Wide, where I met a bunch of amazing people involved in the scene. Over the years this has evolved into a company which I now co-run.

What exactly is Wide Days?
Wide Days is Scotland’s only music industry convention – a two-day event that's designed to appeal to everyone from emerging musicians through to seasoned industry professionals. It's really a meeting place for the music community, with a day of panels and talks, a programme of gigs showcasing the best new Scottish talent followed by a day of networking and socialising. The event takes place in Edinburgh each April.

What's your favourite thing about Edinburgh’s music scene?
The diversity of the scene in Edinburgh is really exciting. Once you scratch below the surface, you realise there are tonnes of subcultures going on – Sneaky Pete's hosts great club nights for fans of electronic music, The Electric Circus put on hundreds of touring bands, Alive and Amplified run regular new band nights at the Leith Depot, Neu! Reekie! fuse poetry, music and spoken word in some of the city's best venues, and there are numerous folk sessions going on in pubs like the Royal Oak, the Captains Bar and Sandy Bell's. There's something for everyone. Don't be shy, get stuck in!

Joel White

Bookings boss at the Art School, Glasgow.

How does the Art School impact Glasgow's music scene?
Glasgow's music scene is too sprawling for us to measure 'impact' in some easy way, and this is one of the best things about it. We support lots of new musicians and artists from the city, we think critically about the politics of club spaces and what role a venue plays in that; an overdue discussion that we're still very much trying to work on. We're lucky that we have a really malleable space; it can host the most huge immersive productions and live performances, but also do much smaller exhibitions, readings and discussion based events. 

Do you have any advice to a band fancying a support slot?

Most of the time you're much better putting something on yourselves! This isn't always easy, but Glasgow has all kinds of networks of people who would be up for helping you. I think it’s good to start by thinking about what kind of scene you'd want to be part of, and why. Get involved with all the amazing musical/artistic pivoting points in the city, which are more about trying stuff out, learning and experimenting together. 

Emily MacLaren

Co-founder & engineer at The Green Door.

Why did you decide to open The Green Door?
Sam [Smith], Stuart [Evans] and I came together out of frustration with commercial recording studios and the idea of a commercial music industry. We all believe that music is made within communities; it’s about trying to foster a community of musicians who put on gigs together, put out records together and support each other. That’s part of the ethos of the studio, and the workshops that we offer; it’s not really training people to be sound engineers, it’s encouraging musicians to take control over the sounds they’re recording, to be more self-reliant. 

Why did you set up shop in Glasgow?
Glasgow is the best city in the world for making music! You’ve got good music in the clubs, good music on a live level, and people going to both – kind of cross-pollinating with each other. Golden Teacher are a really good example: people who were in a hardcore band and people who are DJs coming together to make something you can’t quite put your finger on. It’s emblematic of the Glasgow spirit.

What advice do you give to musicians recording for the first time?
It should be fun! You need an open minded approach. I think people can kill it for themselves by trying to be too professional – they get to a point when they’re working on their CV or their Twitter account, and they lose sight of why they wanted to make music in the first place.

Don’t try and make something you think will sell, because most likely you’ll end up polishing something really uninteresting… that probably won’t sell anyway. Follow the sound that’s in your head. Experiment. Make sure that you’ve rehearsed the songs, and you’re confident you can play them! This is your shot. We often tell people to come in with the core song, and then let the recording process take over; you can compose as you record, let the song evolve.

How can students get involved with The Green Door?
Our projects are all free for people to participate it. Get in contact and we’ll put you on the list!  Sonic Youth is a ten week production course and people come in two days a week. They learn the basics, and get a free recording and mixing session. We’ve just been awarded funding from Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative, so that will be running again in February. 

Our electronic music club is ongoing – every few months we do a six day course for people who want to learn how to use drum machines and synthesisers. Super Groups works in partnership with the African Arts Centre and the integration network to bring in young refugees and people who are new to Glasgow, for workshops and group demos.

Eilidh McMillan

Musician, Breakfast Muff.

When did you first get involved in music?
I'd never been in a band until about three years ago, when I took a free short course in recording and engineering at Green Door. That's where I met Simone (Breakfast Muff) and we started a band together with some of my other pals, and we recorded an EP. I wasn't knowledgeable about music at all before we started Breakfast Muff. I couldn't play drums, guitar or bass and now I can. You have to do things that scare you. 

How did you first start playing shows and sharing your music?
The first couple of gigs we played were through friends of friends, and James McKay (then booker at the 13th Note, now booker at Nice 'N' Sleazy) was very kind and gave us a chance... even though we were kind of weird and had no idea what we were doing. The best thing to do is play every gig you can and be nice to people – you have to work with other acts, the promoter, the sound engineer and the people working in the venue, so it's important to be respectful and help people out.

Do you have any tips for anyone new to a music scene?

Help other people carry their gear. Be friendly. Don't play gigs at venues that make you sell tickets. Take risks. Be hopeful. Play the music you want to, not what everyone else is doing. Don't try to be cool. Go to lots of shows. Stay away from industry snakes. Play instruments you've never played before – mistakes are just happy accidents. Tour and tour and tour.

Talk to your heroes if you get the chance. Put up bands from other towns. Arrange a fee prior to non-DIY gigs. Don't be a diva but do be proud of your music. Get a job you don't care about so you can quit to play a tour if you have to. Play music with your best friends and play music with people you don't know. Stand up for you and your friends. And, most importantly, don't take shit from straight white cis males who play boring guitar music.

Derrick Johnston

Founder of DIY punk label Make-That-A-Take.

What were your goals for MTAT?
In the very beginning, there were no real goals beyond our little collective supporting each other to put out our own music, playing our own shows and putting on bands that we wanted to see. Putting on the best possible shows in the most positive environment and being involved in releasing music that we're emotionally invested in continues to be our motivation. It's very exciting to see your friends develop their art and reach more people than we'd ever imagined possible.

What are the shared values behind the collective?
We've always had a "social conscience" of sorts; we were founded as an anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-sexist collective and that's something that we carry with us to this day. Since then, we've hosted hundreds of shows and put out almost 100 releases. Things have evolved naturally over time but we still carry those same values of freedom from oppression in our hearts; that's a battle that will never change! 

We believe that music and punk can help foster a positive environment and fairer society for all. We've done loads of benefit shows over the years in support of the likes of Doctors Without Borders, Dundee Foodbank, Dundee Refugee Support, Oxfam, Skateistan, Mindscape Counselling, Maggie's Centres and many more.

Our moral and ethical values inform everything that we do and will always continue to do so. For me, personally, one does not exist without the other as they're intrinsically linked. That's always been the basis of punk rock for me, ever since the Dead Kennedys blew my mind as a teenager.

Do you have advice for anyone wanting to get involved?
The absolute best thing to do is to come down to a show and say hello. We are always super keen to hear from new people that have an interest and would like to get involved in our community; contact is key! 

As far as putting on your own shows goes, just do it and go with your guts. The first show we ever put on, way before MTAT existed, was in a Girl Guide hut in Alyth in the mid 90s. While hardly Knebworth, it set us on a path that we've followed to this day with a spirit we still carry with us. If we can do this, anyone can!